Elliptical Trainers 101: Everything You Need To Know About

For many fitness experts, there are four main exercise machines, regardless of whether you’re at home or a gym: treadmills, exercise bikes, rowing machines and elliptical trainers. 

Often the most misunderstood and underutilized of the four, elliptical trainers have a unique design and functionality that gives them some distinct advantages and uses over other types of larger exercise equipment.

Sometimes referred to as cross-trainers, or x-trainers, these machines can sometimes be overlooked, despite always having a heavy presence at most gyms.

For the uninformed, elliptical trainers are those weird-looking machines that don’t look very intensive or even all that hard.  For the semi-informed, they are nice to use every once in awhile, but only when you are weary of other exercise machines at that time.

For the fully-informed, these trainers are a vital part of their routine and provide an effective way to train with zero impact.

Are you a bit lacking in your elliptical trainer knowledge? Looking for some ways to incorporate them into your workouts, or maybe even buy one for your home? You’re in the right place.

This guide will explain all of the vital information you need to know about the world of elliptical trainers, including what they can and can’t do, how to use them correctly, and why you should consider adding one to your home gym, with their proper accessories.

What Are Elliptical Trainers?

Simply put, an elliptical trainer is an exercise machine that uses elliptical motion during operation. While it may be easy to leave it at that, I know most of you have no idea what that even means. So let me explain.

elliptical trainers

The term “elliptical” refers to the motion of how the machine moves. Ellipse is a term for oval, and elliptical is based on how the pedals/platforms move in an oval shape. Simple, right?

So, an elliptical trainer uses this oval motion, swapping out a fluid circular movement in place of impact. The movement replicates a sort of running motion, but without having to leave the surface of the pedals or platforms that you stand on like you would when running on a surface or treadmill.

Also, the vast majority of elliptical trainers also have handles that are synced to the foot movements, so as each stride is taken, the handles alternate back and forth concerning the foot platforms.

The result is a fluid stride with no impact whatsoever, engaging the full body. The actual workout aspect is created by using a flywheel that creates resistance, s each stride is working against the resistance to engage the muscles.

Depending on the model, this can be either manual resistance with a basic flywheel design or an electronic version that lets you adjust resistance levels as you go.

In addition to this variance, the handles on an elliptical vary as well, ranging from lower handles to parallel bars that stick upwards and have grips on them.

Resistance can vary with the handles, with some models offering substantial resistance, and others merely giving you something to hold on to as you run/walk.

With some models, the handles are merely “along for the ride,” while others require that you exert similar effort as with your lower body to keep the machine going.

History Of Elliptical Trainers

Elliptical machines are relatively new in comparison to some of the more traditional exercise machines but have still been around for quite a while. With that said, they don’t have an extensive history, coming to surface in the late 1980s and early 90s.

history of elliptical machine

In 1988 researchers at Purdue University published a study on elliptical path generation based off of a four-part linkage they developed, where the path of a point on the floating link was shown to follow an elliptical shape with each revolution.

Later on, in 1995, Precor took this idea and introduced the Elliptical Fitness Crosstrainer (EFX), the first exercise machine that let the foot roll from heel to toe just like in the running, but without any impact.

The EFX used a rear flywheel with a forward foot pedal, which facilitated a smooth elliptical movement that reduced numbing of the foot experienced on other stationary cardio equipment.

Shortly after the introduction of the EFX, many gyms began ordering them, and other manufacturers quickly began developing their versions of elliptical machines, altering the flywheel placement to not infringe on the original patent. Just a few years later, they were immensely popular.

This popularity surged, even more, when physical trainers and therapists realized the advantages that zero-impact cardio provided for those that were either unable to run on a treadmill due to age or injury or were working back from an injury.

Today, elliptical machines come in many different shapes, types, and sizes, ranging from very expensive and elaborate machines with a ton of different electronic settings, to basic versions that use manual flywheel resistance and take up little space.

What Makes Them So Special Compared To Other Exercise Machines?

As I’ve already touched on, the main advantage with elliptical machines resides in their low level of impact, followed by a full body nature of the workout when compared to other exercise machines.

elliptical trainer workout

Low Impact, High Energy Consumption Exercise Explained

Impact in workout terms refers to the literal physical implications one experiences during a particular routine or exercise. An example of this would be jumping jacks compared to sit-ups.

With jumping jacks, you’re jumping up and down repeatedly, making an impact each time you hit the ground. With sit-ups, you are lying on your back, going up and down with a fluid motion. This is an example of low impact.

Due to the gliding nature of an elliptical machine, there is no impact at all. The design allows you to replicate a running or walking motion complete with strides, but without the constant impact like you’d get from running on a treadmill.

With an elliptical, you still get a high energy aerobic exercise, without all the impact. Your body is in constant motion, working against resistance, maintaining a high heart rate.

And while impact during exercise is certainly not a bad thing, there are some people whose bodies can no longer hold up to it. An elliptical trainer gives them an effective option for a full body, high energy, calorie-burning exercise, without any harmful impact.

Total Body Exercise

This is another big advantage with an elliptical trainer. Exercise bikes, weight machines, and treadmills are all great, but none of them can give you a true total body exercise.

Elliptical trainers obviously engage the lower body, but the core is also somewhat involved as well. On top of that, you have the upper-body aspect with the handles too.

This is not to say that elliptical trainers provide the same level of exercise you get with more intensive workouts, but for a machine that’s mostly cardio and calorie burning, the added toning and muscle engagement is a nice bonus, and better than other popular exercise machines.

Multiple Muscle Groups

This goes back to the total body workout aspect. The majority of the time on an elliptical trainer your leg muscles are doing most of the work, but if the handles have a high amount of resistance, you’ll workout arm muscles, and some chest as well.

Differences Between Elliptical And Treadmill

Treadmills and elliptical trainers often get grouped into the same category, which is understandable to an extent. First, the similarities:

treadmill vs. elliptical
  • Both these machines rely on leg movement
  • Both involve running/walking, and in some instances, climbing too.
  • They also both focus mainly on cardio and aerobic fitness.
  • Treadmills and elliptical trainers remain in place, yet allow you to cover distances of your choice.

The differences are a bit more stark. Treadmills offer running and walking, with the same amount of impact that you’d get when running on a road, sidewalk, track, etc. That’s as far as they go; typical up and down strides for however long you’re willing to run.

Elliptical trainers avoid impact altogether. While you’re still mimicking a running motion, your feet never leave the ground or surface. You remain attached to the machine, seamlessly gliding back and forth in place.

Treadmills do not engage the upper body. Elliptical trainers have handles that move in conjunction with the feet pedals and platforms, keeping everything in sync.

More often than not, someone using an elliptical trainer can either let the legs generate the majority of the power or use their arms to push and pull the handles back and forth, aiding in the driving of the flywheel and creating a more engaging workout.

How To Use An Elliptical Trainer

Using an elliptical trainer is not as simple as an exercise bike or treadmill, but it doesn’t take all that long to figure it out.

using elliptical machine

To start, simply step onto the machine, grab the handles, and either use your force to get the machine going or power it on using the provided console, if applicable. Pressing down with your legs in an alternating fashion should be enough to get things going.

It may take you a brief moment to get your coordination down, but you’ll settle in soon enough. Once you get a good speed, lock it in an maintain the same pace, or gradually increase as you go.

That’s it! You have a lot of leeway as to how intense you want the exercise to be, so do what feels right, and be sure to use the machine’s console to track your time and progress, or use a fitness app on your phone or tablet.

Type Of Elliptical Trainers

Elliptical trainers were rather limited when they first came out, but now there are a lot of different varieties to choose from.

Full Size

Like the name indicates, full-size elliptical trainers are large in size and offer the most regarding stride range and versatility. They come in many different drive types and usually have a lot of different technical features too.

A full-size elliptical trainer generally provides a better workout, mainly due to the stride length and adjustability.

Gliders

Gliders are a type of elliptical trainer, but they don’t use any resistance. You may sometimes hear people refer to regular elliptical trainers as gliders, but this isn’t accurate. While they do use an elliptical motion, the lack of a flywheel or any resistance makes them a different type altogether, and different workout experience.

elliptical glider machine

Gliders work using the same concept as an elliptical trainer, but your body is essentially suspended in the air, and you use the legs and arms together to create the running motion. Your body weight provides the resistance instead of a flywheel.

Gliders take a higher amount of strength and more coordination than a typical elliptical trainer, so they aren’t for everyone. They are much cheaper, however, and a lot quieter, so gliders make an excellent option for anyone wanting a more intense elliptical workout, for a more economical price.

Under Desk

Under the desk, elliptical trainers are not traditional elliptical machines but still use the same concepts. Like the name says, these are small machines you can place right under your desk and use while you are sitting.

under desk elliptical machine

Under desk elliptical trainers obviously only use your feet, offering small elliptical cycles with a small amount of resistance.

These aren’t ideal for getting actual workouts as you’d get in a gym, but they are a convenient and innovative way to burn calories and remain active even while staying seated at your desk, office, or cubicle, offering a modern way to multitask in more ways than one.

Elliptical Drive Types

Elliptical trainers utilize flywheel drive systems to create resistance for a true workout. The actual placement of the drive is a big part of differentiating different types.

Front

With a front drive elliptical trainer, the drive wheel is positioned right at the front of the machine in a large housing and has the look of an exercise bike in a way.

front drive elliptical

Front drives often have pedals that are supported on wheels that glide on a track. While often the cheapest of full-size elliptical trainers, they also tend to be the noisiest, and sometimes vibrate more too.

Another drawback is the stride of a front drive. These have more of a stair-climbing stride, as opposed to long-running strides found on other models.

Center

When the drive wheel is located in the center, the pedals ride on cylindrical rollers and a crankshaft -- similar to a bike.

center drive elliptical

This type is often the most compact of the three, taking up a lot less floor space overall. There is a tradeoff though, as the handles on center drives usually need more clearance space.

The configuration of center drives are more fluid and allow for softer, longer strides.

Rear

Rear drive elliptical trainers have a small flywheel drive right at the back of the machine and have different configurations available, such as a track-and-roller setup for the pedals, or pedals that are suspended on long pedal arms between the drive wheel and handles.

rear drive elliptical

Rear drive elliptical trainers are typically the most expensive, and offer more versatility in stride lengths, along with the ability to incline. They are usually the quietest and have a softer stride.

How Elliptical Workouts Can Be Adjusted

All elliptical trainers use the same type of motion, but there are a few choice adjustments that can be made to provide different types and intensity levels for your workouts.

adjusted elliptical machine

Incline

Anyone that’s used a treadmill knows how incline adjustments can make a massive difference in regards to the level of a workout, which also targets different muscle groups in the legs. The same can be said for incline adjustments on elliptical trainers.

Not all machines are capable of offering incline adjustments, but those that do give you an easy way to take things up a notch. By altering the incline of the elliptical trainer, you can create more downward resistance at an angle, which makes the workout harder, and causes certain muscles to work harder.

Resistance

With elliptical trainers, it’s all about the resistance. This is what your body is working against the whole time you’re using the machine, so the ability to adjust the resistance is crucial for really dying in your ideal workout intensity.

Resistance can be adjusted on the flywheel. Cranking up the resistance provides a harder workout, which can help you put more work in within a shorter amount of time. Taking the resistance down will help you focus more on endurance and stamina, ideal for cardio workouts in between lifting days and such.

Reverse/Dual Direction

Some people don’t realize this, or even think to try it out, but a lot of elliptical trainers can reverse directions, which can create an entirely different feel for your workout.

The direction reversal can also improve your coordination, flexibility, and ability to run backward, which is useful for certain sports.

Either way, switching stride directions works a different set of muscles in different ways and is an easy way to get more out of an elliptical trainer at home, or in the gym.

How Elliptical Trainers Compare To Other Exercises Concerning Calorie Consumption?

There’s been a lot of debate over the years as to whether or not the design of elliptical trainers allows for a more efficient workout in terms of calories burned when compared to other machines.

elliptical calorie consumption

The reality is that it depends on how you use them.

According to Harvard Health Publications, you can burn around 400 calories when using an elliptical machine for just 30 minutes exercising on an elliptical machine, but this does depend on your weight. 

By all accounts, the heavier you are, the more weight you'll burn. Most of the time, a treadmill burns just a little more than an elliptical, but with a few tweaks to the resistance and incline and you can easily outage a treadmill in the same time frame.

If you’re someone that can’t have high-impact workouts, an elliptical trainer offers the same calorie-burning effects in nearly the same amount of time and without putting a strain on your feet and joints.

General Elliptical Trainer Maintenance

One of the best things about elliptical trainers is how easy they are to maintain over time. Just a little common sense and a few common items will go a long way in protecting your fitness investment.

  • Always use your elliptical trainer in a dry, cool setting.
  • Routinely clean areas that come in contact with feet and hands.
  • Keep the display console clean.
  • Always use a soft and clean cloth wipe with warm water and a mild cleaning agent.

Routine Maintenance For Elliptical Trainers

  • Check console mounting bi-annually
  • Clean trays and bottle holders weekly, and also inspect for damage
  • Clean and dry the frame every week, and look for any damage
  • Clean plastic cover and trim pieces weekly, check for cracks
  • Always use authorized service technician for repairs, replacement parts, and service

Conclusion

As you can see, elliptical trainers can be useful for users of any fitness or age level, and also provide those who are either recovering from injury or no longer able to sustain running impacts with an effective way to remain in shape.

With proper use, an elliptical trainer can play a vital role in your fitness journey, and always makes an excellent addition to your home gym.

Are you in the market for a new elliptical machine? Be sure to check out our buying guide, which highlights our top elliptical trainer picks, spanning a variety of types and budgets. There’s something for everyone, along with helpful advice to guide your purchase decision.